Why Political Liberalism is Not Enough
May 7, 2014 richardstevenpark

Why Political Liberalism is Not Enough

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Whether by design or default, proponents of political liberalism promote certain ends or ultimate social values. In particular, liberalism maintains that in view of the conditions of late industrial capitalism, what matters most is economic liberty. That is, given the constraints on freedom imposed by the ‘unbridled capitalism . . . government intervention in the economy does not violate but rather vindicates individual freedom’, as the late Harvard political and legal theorist Ronald Dworkin argues. (See his ‘Liberalism’, in Public and Private Morality, ed. Stuart Hampshire, p. 142.) Or, as the social theorist Ernest Gellner puts it, given the conditions and constraints of modern society and the ‘inevitably political nature of major economic conditions’, without their being ‘some form of effective welfare state [modern society] is unutterably repulsive’ (Gellner, Conditions of Liberty, pp. 90-92).

By contrast, the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that there remains in late modern society a breakdown of social cohesion (among other things), a central corrective of which is to be found in the moral bonds of civic virtue. Dworkin’s liberalism might well ‘[enforce] the right of each person to respect and concern as an individual’ (Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent, p. 51), but it fails to take into account what it is to be an individual, especially as one embedded in a particular civic community. The problem that Sandel sees as most fundamental to the changed understanding of the modern state is that it ignores the crucial role played by the basic ‘civic virtues’ which are requisite in forging the necessary ‘moral bonds’ for a given community. If these civic virtues are to be fostered, the state cannot afford to ‘be neutral toward the values and ends its citizens espouse’. Rather, a deeply ‘formative politics’ that is required for the forging of social cohesion and civility is one which ‘cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires’ (Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent, pp. 5-6) – something liberalism not only disallows but makes impossible.

Thus, on political liberalism, put roughly, ‘justice’ is based on the rules which deliver an equality of rights and duties to the citizens of a given political community. This duty-based ethic is present in consequentialist and deontological ethics, characteristic of the modern world. But beyond duty and utility, Sandel argues, we must have virtue. To this construction, I would only add, or emphasise, one further thing: the virtue of friendship.

In our ever-fragmenting pluralistically secular social reality, it is no surprise that there is much strife and war since we fear what is foreign and the ‘the other’ is so ‘foreign’. We hardly even know our own neighbours, let alone non-nationals. Charles Taylor sums up the idea succinctly and powerfully in his concluding essay found in an edited volume on his rather behemoth of a work, A Secular Age, where he writes:

‘I don’t think that we’re going to manage to get through this tremendous diversification of Western society with a decent society unless we not only have the right rules and the right principles and so on, but have enough people who have this kind of gut sense that there’s something really valuable in that other person—and other view, etc.—and are willing to talk to them. . . . [In politics] sometimes the small battalion really count. If there are enough people here and there who have enough meeting and understanding of others, they can stand like firebreaks in a forest fire. We are in the business . . . of trying to multiply those firebreaks … I value this tremendously—this kind of exchange. I value this personally. I value this in terms of my faith. I value this in terms of what I can discover. But I also value this because I see that it’s something we really need in our predicament’ (Taylor, ‘Apologia pro Libro suo’, in Varieties of Secularisms, p. 321).

Taylor is right: we need to know, love, and learn from ‘the other’ so that our fear of foreignness fades; otherwise, misunderstanding, ignorance, and/or apathy will continue to conduce conflict and anarchy or, even worse, authoritarianism.

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